I initially wrote these “program notes” as part of a class assignment, and have been meaning to post them for a while. I picked the work somewhat arbitrarily from the options we were given, but became truly fascinated with the work. It is a little known cycle; in fact, there are unfortunately no YouTube recordings I can link to, but it is an interesting and important work that bears seeking out.
Five Satires (Pictures from the Past) by Dmitri Shostakovich
Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich, illustrious composer at the height of Soviet-era Russia, was born in 1906 to a Polish-Lithuanian family. His compositions from his earliest years onward were influenced by the political turmoil of revolutionary Russia. Shostakovich’s Five Satires is a perfect example of a work that significantly features politics.
Against his personal beliefs, Shostakovich “came to prominence as a hero of Soviet culture” while he was still quite young. He struggled with this identity for the rest of his career, simultaneously composing works that were true to his beliefs, as well as “official” works for the state, and adjusting his aesthetic to avoid censorship. This manifested itself in numerous ways, in fact, (Pictures from the Past) was only added to the title Five Satires at the suggestion of his singer to “mask the contemporary relevance of the work,” thus helping protecting it from censors.
Five Satires was composed in 1960, towards the end of Shostakovich’s life, for the singer Galina Vishnevskaya. She and her husband, Mstislav Rostropovich, premiered this work on February 21, 1961. Though the critical reception had been lukewarm, the audience enjoyed it so much they demanded an encore of the complete cycle. Shostakovich was better known for his symphonies and other instrumental works, but he did set numerous texts and poems throughout his life in song cycles and operas. Five Satires (Pictures from the Past), was set to political poems by Sasha Chorney, poet and children’s writer from the early 1900s. These poems address and mock various aspects of life in Russia during the revolution, sentiments Shostakovich imbues with additional meaning through the use of musical allusions and references. Each “satire” begins the same way: the piano opens with a single repeating note, and the vocal line with a declamatory phrase (the title of the work). After this unifying “intro,” the songs evolve into separate entities.
The first satire, “To the Critic,” sets up the rest of the poems. Its text wittily explains that the pronoun “I” in a poem does not represent the poet, but the subject of the poem. This serves as a warning in the interpretation of the rest of the poems; the ambiguity in the poem’s subject hides some of the political tension. In the beginning, the text is set to speech-like rhythms and melodic inflections, rather than a true melody, and the vocal line becomes progressively more sustained and melodic throughout the piece. At the end, the piano takes over with a brief, dance-like postlude, a sort of musical “laugh” after the humorous final lines of the poem, “The poet is a man. He even has a beard!”
The second, satire “Taste of Spring,” purports to be about the speaker’s excitement at the beginning of spring. The poem, however, is actually a political metaphor that Shostakovich intended to represent the “Thaw,” a time of “loosened controls on cultural and political expression” that occurred during the 1950s and 60s. Shostakovich sets each stanza slightly differently; the first two and final two stanzas have variations on the same musical material: excited, wild, whirling piano arpeggios, and jubilant vocal exclamations, as the narrator talks about the promise of springtime. This raucous music also serves to highlight the poet and Shostakovich’s uninhibited excitement at the dawn of a less-regulated era. The third stanza stands alone, employing a reference to a Russian street song with the imitations of an accordion in the piano’s left hand, to support the depictions of street cleaners.
“Progeny,” the third satire, is set strophically to a driving, waltz-like accompaniment. This repetitiveness in the piano forces the listener to focus on the text, which blatantly denounces the current regime and expresses disillusionment with the idea of a better future. This poem is crux of the cycle, and it was the poem that put the cycle most in danger of being censored.
The final two satires, “The Misunderstanding,” and “The Kreutzer Sonata,” differ from the rest of the poems in the cycle because they are set in the third person, and they read as parables. The latter, though it does not refer to the Beethoven sonata of the same name, but to the Tolstoy short story about the sonata, quotes material from the sonata in an obvious reference. These two satires evoke various musical references in the setting of their stanzas the fourth uses melodies to represent the dichotomy between characters, while the fifth employs waltz- and march-music to evoke salons and calls-to-action.
Researching this cycle really piqued my performing curiosity, so I am starting to work on these songs, and am finding them challenging but extremely interesting works. I highly recommend listening to them, and only wish I could provide links to recordings!